Detours

With the exception of posting my friend Per’s amazing wolfdog-rescue story, I haven’t written anything on this blog in a month. Since my long vacation in August, I have repeatedly ripped up the numerous false-start tracks that I keep laying down; tracks which seem to point in promising directions but that ultimately point toward the same corner into which all my well-trod paths of futility have led me over the course of the past 42 years.

I wanted to post about misdirection; perhaps I’m doing that now, I wouldn’t know. I suppose if I truly wanted to write about misdirection I’d start a post about how cool my dogs are and end up typing these same words…the post I started to write, and which I may follow up with at some point, began with Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken:”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth

In this stanza, the speaker looks inquiringly down this road until it disappears into the woods before decideing to take the other, “grassier” path, idealistically vowing to come back and try that first road some other time. However, acknowledging how “way leads on to way,” he doubts that he will ever do so. This summer, on my way to the glorious yellow wood in Vermont where our family spends several weeks every August, an unexpected detour changed how my “way leads on to way,” and I found myself travelling the road not taken.

My three girls and I (my husband, tied up at work, was scheduled to join us in a week) had been marveling at how the 7-hour trip had fairly flown by. We were enjoying the new minivan bought in last-minute desperation after the old one had finally given up the ghost; the attendant financial stress and strain were momentarily erased by a minivan-dance-party to, among other classics in the fancy new 6-CD disc player, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall (I tried not to be too hurt by the surprising criticism of “Ben” from my youngest: “Sorry, I am NOT moved by this song.”) The girls had even collaboratively invented a new, elaborately illustrated scatological cartoon, “The Adventures of Super-Anus,” based both on our dog Angus’ unfortunate tendency to involuntarily fire off his anal glands (so pleasant in close spaces) and the serendipitous similarity of his name and his affliction (I really wish I could find that cartoon now). Excited to arrive when other friends in that summer lakefront community would be heading home from dinner at the communal inn, we were almost giddy with anticipation as we approached the landmarks that meant we were less than one hour away.

For me, that in itself was a divergence from the history of our trips to this tiny, rural corner of the Northeast Kingdom where Vermont meets Francophone Canada. In the past, I had often felt that these summer excursions to the pristine, glacial lake had been less than the idyllic vacation they appeared to everyone else.  This was where my husband had grown up spending his summers, not I: I was the “marry-in.” Visits during the early years of our marriage tended to be fraught with anxiety about being judged/fitting in; memorably hurtful was my husband’s worry (which seemed only to manifest here) that me feeding our babies–i.e., nursing them at my breast within 1,000 yards of other human beings–might offend others or reflect badly on me/him/us.

There was the occasionally awkward social reality that the friendly people my husband had grown up with were, while welcoming, not my friends, but strangers I’d end up virtually living with for one week a year. And of course, the exhaustion of supervising young children on “vacation” led to tag-team situations where either he or I held the baby/babies while the other tried to quickly enjoy him or herself without feeling guilty or taking too long [SO relaxing! Such great quality time!]. Then, there were the conflicts with other family members about who was going up when: families being what they are and busy people with young children being hermetically sealed in the demanding minutiae of their own lives, this issue frequently resulted in one branch of the family resentful at unexpectedly having to share their vacation with some invited guests of the others.

Finally, and most painfully, sometime around the tenth year of our marriage this pristine glacial lake had become, through no fault of its own, the physical repository of those inarticulably painful moments that two people who pledge to share one another’s lives for “eternity” seem to inevitably  accrue. While several of our friends’ marriages didn’t survive this painful period, ours did. However, a certain bench on the lake’s grassy shore, or the act of looking out across the lake at a particular time of day, will probably forever impregnate me with the nausea of pain and loss.

Then suddenly, the familiar road leading to our lakefront cabin came to an end. The road was as I had frequently felt in the past: devastated, but literally: the paved extension that stretched over a hidden stream had been blown up by dynamite, the gaping, rubble-strewn detritus guarded like Fort Apache, the Bronx, by a frozen tableau of bulldozers and backhoes. Michael Jackson and the dance party screeched to an unpleasant, obscenity-laced (“Hey! Only Mommy uses those words!”) halt. Me being me, I initially sought to circumvent the roadblock: no dice. Miraculously reaching my husband on the cellphone (we were perhaps within the last mile of cellphone reception), I confirmed what the physical evidence suggested: there was no way around, this road was officially (if temporarily) destroyed and we’d have to find a new way to reach our destination.

After he talked me down off my ledge, we were back on our way, in the dark now, following a wildly unfamiliar detour that (GPS-less), we were less than certain would actually take us where we needed to go. As it turns out, I didn’t realize that I was making the first step onto the Road Not Taken. We eventually arrived late but safely, triumphantly, welcomed into the star-strewn blackness pregnant with silence, with promise, with inscrutable life so different from our suburban routines.

In retrospect, it was as if that brutal detour did the trick. This was the first summer I came up working, able to do my own thing on my laptop while the kids cavorted with their friends under minimal or zero supervision. Maybe I owe something to a certain magical confluence in the patterns of women’s lives, but suddenly women whom I’d always liked, but with whom mostly I’d chatted briefly as we chased our kids about or traded downtime with our husbands, were really MY friends, friends whose kids disappeared to play together on the sandy shores of the lake so that their mommies could actually sit on a porch, share some cocktails, and talk to each other. One friend in particular helped guide me further on pathways away from my self-same roads, though she probably didn’t realize it. Though both runners, we had always run separately, dragging jog-strollers and/or dogs, sticking to familiar paths. This summer we were free to try out new and different trails through the woods and around the lake (as well as up some really long, hot hills, hungover; but I’ll try not to ruin the conclusion here) together. I felt as if I was re-inscribing this place in my mind, rewriting my relationship to it and what it used to tell me about myself.

Which brings me back to Frost’s poem: the speaker claims that he looked down one road, but then took the other,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there 
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In  leaves no step had trodden black. 

While everyone (myself included) tends to remember that triumphant closing couplet:

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It’s just an illusion. The two roads are the same. The speaker’s memory that his chosen path was “grassy and wanted wear” is immediately contradicted by the mysteriously impersonal assertion that they were the same because of “the passing there” (his own? that of many others before the grass re-grew?) and the way both roads lay “equally” untouched. The paths are not parallel, or even forked; they intertwine like the plot of an Italo Calvino novel, or geometrical drawing from M.C. Escher. The difference is not in whether or not these two roads were travelled by others before him: the difference lies in the journey he takes as constituted through the decisions he makes, and then reconstitutes through memory.

Time is fleeting: I can never go back and find that road I didn’t take. But this summer, I realized that comfortable habits of letting “way lead on to way” can become self-destructive entrapment. Making a detour, consciously running down a different path, will always lead you to the road less traveled by, even if it’s the one you thought you were already on.

And that makes all the difference.

4 Responses to Detours

  1. irretrievablybroken says:

    This is brilliant. You are brilliant.

    • helena says:

      Thanks, darling, praise from my brilliant favorite writer is especially meaningful to me. Thank goodness my crippling laziness in the field of self-promotion means that I write in a virtual box for the eyeballs of a few friends: we get to keep my “brilliance” all to ourselves. : )

  2. “…comfortable habits of letting “way lead on to way” can become self-destructive entrapment. Making a detour, consciously running down a different path, will always lead you to the road less traveled by, even if it’s the one you thought you were already on.”

    So true. SO TRUE.

    One of the most glorious Christmases I ever spent was the year after my parent’s marriage finally ended. Mom and I spent the week with old family friends instead of continuing to ossify in the bosom of my Dad’s family. But that week was more than a good time – it was a pristine example of what can happen when you blow up “tradition” and “duty” and allow yourself to move on.

    • helena says:

      Thanks, Jill, and: “allowing yourself to move on” is a good way to put it. I, particularly, have a hard time doing that. Sometimes we need a little temporarily uncomfortable shock-and-awe to make us realize how insidiously easy it is to cling to old hurts, and how amazing it can feel when you point yourself in a new direction.

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